International Date Line

Divides Two Days on the Earth's Surface

The International Date Line
International Date Line (IDL), opposite Prime (Greenwich) meridian, which marks change of date. (Photo by D'Arco Editori / Getty Images)

While the world is divided into 24 time zones, there has to be a place where there is a difference in days, somewhere the day truly "starts" on the planet. Thus, the 180° line of longitude, exactly one-half way around the planet from Greenwich, England (and 0° longitude) is approximately where the International Date Line is located. Cross the line from the east to the west and a day is added. Cross from west to the east and a day is subtracted.

An Extra Day?

Without the International Date Line, people who travel west around the planet would discover that when they returned home, it would seem as though an extra day had passed. This situation actually happened to Magellan's crew when they returned home after their circumnavigation of the Earth.

Here's how the International Date Line works. Let's say you fly from the United States to Japan. Let's suppose you leave the United States on Tuesday morning. Since you're traveling west, the time advances slowly thanks to time zones and the speed at which your airplane flies, but once you cross the International Date Line, it's suddenly Wednesday.

On the reverse trip home you fly from Japan to the United States. You leave Japan on Monday morning but as you cross the Pacific Ocean, the day gets later quickly as you cross time zones moving eastward in an airplane. However, once you cross the International Date Line, the day changes to Sunday.

It's Not a Straight Line

The International Date Line is not a straight line, either. Since its beginning, it has zigzagged to avoid splitting apart countries into two days. It bends through the Bering Strait to avoid placing far northeastern Russia in a different day than the rest of the country.

Unfortunately, tiny Kiribati was split.

In 1995, the island country of Kiribati decided to move the International Date Line. Since the line is simply established by international agreement and there are no treaties or formal agreements associated with the line, most of the rest of the world followed Kiribati and moved the line on their maps.

Most recent maps show the change and you'll see the big panhandle zigzag, which keeps Kiribati all within the same day. Now eastern Kiribati and Hawaii, which are located in the same area of longitude, are a whole day apart.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Rosenberg, Matt. "International Date Line." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, Rosenberg, Matt. (2017, March 3). International Date Line. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "International Date Line." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 19, 2018).